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- The Tempting of Tavernake - 2/65 -
With the bracelet in his hand, Tavernake descended three more flights of stairs and entered the drawing-room of the private hotel conducted by Mrs. Raithby Lawrence, whose husband, one learned from her frequent reiteration of the fact, had once occupied a distinguished post in the Merchant Service of his country. The disturbance following upon the disappearance of the bracelet was evidently at its height. There were at least a dozen people in the room, most of whom were standing up. The central figure of them all was Mrs. Fitzgerald, large and florid, whose yellow hair with its varied shades frankly admitted its indebtedness to peroxide; a lady of the dashing type, who had once made her mark in the music-halls, but was now happily married to a commercial traveler who was seldom visible. Mrs. Fitzgerald was talking.
"In respectable boarding-houses, Mrs. Lawrence," she declared with great emphasis, "thefts may sometimes take place, I will admit, in the servants' quarters, and with all their temptations, poor things, it's not so much to be wondered at. But no such thing as this has ever happened to me before--to have jewelry taken almost from my person in the drawing-room of what should be a well-conducted establishment. Not a servant in the room, remember, from the moment I took it off until I got up from the piano and found it missing. It's your guests you've got to look after, Mrs. Lawrence, sorry to say it though I am."
Mrs. Lawrence managed here, through sheer loss of breath on the part of her assailant, to interpose a tearful protest.
"I am quite sure," she protested feebly, "that there is not a person in this house who would dream of stealing anything, however valuable it was. I am most particular always about references."
"Valuable, indeed!" Mrs. Fitzgerald continued with increased volubility. "I'd have you understand that I am not one of those who wear trumpery jewelry. Thirty-five guineas that bracelet cost me if it cost a penny, and if my husband were only at home I could show you the receipt."
Then there came an interruption of almost tragical interest. Mrs. Fitzgerald, her mouth still open, her stream of eloquence suddenly arrested, stood with her artificially darkened eyes riveted upon the stolid, self-composed figure in the doorway. Every one else was gazing in the same direction. Tavernake was holding the bracelet in the palm of his hand.
"Thirty-five guineas!" he repeated. "If I had known that it was worth as much as that, I do not think that I should have dared to touch it."
"You--you took it!" Mrs. Fitzgerald gasped.
"I am afraid," he admitted, "that it was rather a clumsy joke. I apologize, Mrs. Fitzgerald. I hope you did not really imagine that it had been stolen."
One was conscious of the little thrill of emotion which marked the termination of the episode. Most of the people not directly concerned were disappointed; they were being robbed of their excitement, their hopes of a tragical denouement were frustrated. Mrs. Lawrence's worn face plainly showed her relief. The lady with the yellow hair, on the other hand, who had now succeeded in working herself up into a towering rage, snatched the bracelet from the young man's fingers and with a purple flush in her cheeks was obviously struggling with an intense desire to box his ears.
"That's not good enough for a tale!" she exclaimed harshly. "I tell you I don't believe a word of it. Took it for a joke, indeed! I only wish my husband were here; he'd know what to do."
"Your husband couldn't do much more than get your bracelet back, ma'am," Mrs. Lawrence replied with acerbity. "Such a fuss and calling every one thieves, too! I'd be ashamed to be so suspicious."
Mrs. Fitzgerald glared haughtily at her hostess.
"It's all very well for those that don't possess any jewelry and don't know the value of it, to talk," she declared, with her eyes fixed upon a black jet ornament which hung from the other woman's neck. "What I say is this, and you may just as well hear it from me now as later. I don't believe this cock-and-bull story of Mr. Tavernake's. Them as took my bracelet from that table meant keeping it, only they hadn't the courage. And I'm not referring to you, Mr. Tavernake," the lady continued vigorously, "because I don't believe you took it, for all your talk about a joke. And whom you may be shielding it wouldn't take me two guesses to name, and your motive must be clear to every one. The common hussy!"
"You are exciting yourself unnecessarily, Mrs. Fitzgerald," Tavernake remarked. "Let me assure you that it was I who took your bracelet from that table."
Mrs. Fitzgerald regarded him scornfully.
"Do you expect me to believe a tale like that?" she demanded.
"Why not?" Tavernake replied. "It is the truth. I am sorry that you have been so upset--"
"It is not the truth!"
More sensation! Another unexpected entrance! Once more interest in the affair was revived. After all, the lookers-on felt that they were not to be robbed of their tragedy. An old lady with yellow cheeks and jet black eyes leaned forward with her hand to her ear, anxious not to miss a syllable of what was coming. Tavernake bit his lip; it was the girl from the roof who had entered the room.
"I have no doubt," she continued in a cool, clear tone, "that Mrs. Fitzgerald's first guess would have been correct. I took the bracelet. I did not take it for a joke, I did not take it because I admire it--I think it is hideously ugly. I took it because I had no money."
She paused and looked around at them all, quietly, yet with something in her face from which they all shrank. She stood where the light fell full upon her shabby black gown and dejected-looking hat. The hollows in her pale cheeks, and the faint rims under her eyes, were clearly manifest; but notwithstanding her fragile appearance, she held herself with composure and even dignity. Twenty--thirty seconds must have passed whilst she stood there, slowly finishing the buttoning of her gloves. No one attempted to break the silence. She dominated them all--they felt that she had something more to say. Even Mrs. Fitzgerald felt a weight upon her tongue.
"It was a clumsy attempt," she went on. "I should have had no idea where to raise money upon the thing, but I apologize to you, nevertheless, Mrs. Fitzgerald, for the anxiety which my removal of your valuable property must have caused you," she added, turning to the owner of the bracelet, whose cheeks were once more hot with anger at the contempt in the girl's tone. "I suppose I ought to thank you, Mr. Tavernake, also, for your well-meant effort to preserve my character. In future, that shall be my sole charge. Has any one anything more to say to me before I go?"
Somehow or other, no one had. Mrs. Fitzgerald was irritated and fuming, but she contented herself with a snort. Her speech was ready enough as a rule, but there was a look in this girl's eyes from which she was glad enough to turn away. Mrs. Lawrence made a weak attempt at a farewell.
"I am sure," she began, "we are all sorry for what's occurred and that you must go--not that perhaps it isn't better, under the circumstances," she added hastily. "As regards--"
"There is nothing owing to you," the girl interrupted calmly. "You may congratulate yourself upon that, for if there were you would not get it. Nor have I stolen anything else."
"About your luggage?" Mrs. Lawrence asked.
"When I need it, I will send for it," the girl replied.
She turned her back upon them and before they realized it she was gone. She had, indeed, something of the grand manner. She had come to plead guilty to a theft and she had left them all feeling a little like snubbed children. Mrs. Fitzgerald, as soon as the spell of the girl's presence was removed, was one of the first to recover herself. She felt herself beginning to grow hot with renewed indignation.
"A thief!" she exclaimed looking around the room. "Just an ordinary self-convicted thief! That's what I call her, and nothing else. And here we all stood like a lot of ninnies. Why, if I'd done my duty I'd have locked the door and sent for a policeman."
"Too late now, anyway," Mrs. Lawrence declared. "She's gone for good, and no mistake. Walked right out of the house. I heard her slam the front door."
"And a good job, too," Mrs. Fitzgerald armed. "We don't want any of her sort here--not those who've got things of value about them. I bet she didn't leave America for nothing."
A little gray-haired lady, who had not as yet spoken, and who very seldom took part in any discussion at all, looked up from her knitting. She was desperately poor but she had charitable instincts.
"I wonder what made her want to steal," she remarked quietly.
"A born thief," Mrs. Fitzgerald declared with conviction,--"a real bad lot. One of your sly-looking ones, I call her."
The little lady sighed.
"When I was better off," she continued, "I used to help at a soup kitchen in Poplar. I have never forgotten a certain look we used to see occasionally in the faces of some of the men and women. I found out what it meant--it was hunger. Once or twice lately I
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